Texans, understandably proud of their storied barbecue tradition, are wont to throw down the following boast: Sure, North Carolina, Memphis, or Kansas City might have fine barbecue, but Texas barbecue is the best when it comes to beef. Yet while Lone Star pitmasters reign supreme when it comes to brisket and short ribs, a visit to Central California proves Texas isn’t the only game in town for mouth-watering, smoke-infused cow meat. Santa Maria barbecue, a regional style long venerated in the Golden State, elevates tri-tip (the triangular cut at the end of the sirloin)to heights of perfection that would compel even the legends in Austin or Lockhart to tip their Stetsons.
Today, Central California is more famous for grapes than steaks. Before wine came to define the region, however, cattle ranching dominated the area’s lush, grassy hills in the 19th century. In those days, ranchers would gather at the end of each cattle season for outdoor feasts. These communal banquets were replete with red wine, fresh bread, and, of course, mountainous servings of meat cooked over open fires. As with brisket’s story in Texas, Californian ranch cooks figured out that smoke, precise temperature control, and patience could precipitate culinary alchemy—transforming tough, grainy cuts like tri-tip into succulent, flavor-packed delicacies.
Over the years, Californians developed the iconic Santa Maria grill–a metal grate attached to a hand crank and pulley–allowing cooks to adjust the meat’s distance from the flame. Red oak, growing abundantly in Central California, quickly became the favored fuel for roasting meat. The fragrant wood imparts a delicate smokiness, far subtler than, say, hickory or mesquite, but a flavor that wonderfully accents tri-tip’s richness. While tri-tip remains the star of the Santa Maria repertoire, lamb, chicken, and chorizo (the latter an echo of Central California’s deep Spanish and Portuguese heritage) are also favorites.
Aligned with the clean, simple flavors of the best Californian cuisine, Santa Maria barbecue keeps seasoning to a minimum: usually just a dash of salt, fresh black pepper, and dehydrated garlic. In contrast to the deep smokiness of Texas-style brisket that’s smoked in an enclosed chamber for upwards of 10 hours, Santa Maria tri-tip is seared on an open-air grill and picks up only hints of smoke. In well-crafted Santa Maria barbecue, the flavor of the tri-tip—beefy umami matches with a slightly chewy texture.
As for the fixins, the meat typically comes with crunchy French bread, fresh pico-de-gallo, and a mess of pinquito beans–more reminders of the enduring Spanish influence on Californian cuisine. Restaurants typically serve the meat sliced and plated with beans, but tri-tip sandwiches, doused with tangy horseradish sauce or salsa, are another delicious riff on Santa Maria barbecue. And while cold, crisp beer is the natural partner for most barbecue, Santa Maria tri-tip cries out for robust red wine like a big Central Coast Zinfindel or Cabernet Sauvignon.
While the style takes its name from the city of Santa Maria, you can enjoy fantastic barbecue all along the Central Coast, which stretches roughly from Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo. Starting in Santa Barbara and moving up the coast to San Luis Obispo (a distance covered in a car in roughly three hours), the list below highlights a few epic restaurants, ranging from rustic to refined, to enjoy Cali’s take on barbecue, that most quintessential of American cuisines.
La Paloma Cafe and Shalhoob Meat Co in Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, a glitzy beach town two hours north of L.A., has no shortage of fantastic dining, but La Paloma Cafe, opened in 2020, has already become one of the city’s buzziest restaurants. The small menu reinterprets the culinary traditions of Old California, adding a gourmet flair to the dishes of Califoreños and cowboys of bygone eras. The sliced tri-tip, garnished with artisanal mustard, horseradish sauce, and sweet pickled onions, sits atop toothsome pinquito beans, also tinged with sweet smokiness. If you’re seated on the patio, you’ll catch heady whiffs of the smoldering red oak from chef Jeremy Tummel’s rig behind the kitchen. Like the food, La Paloma’s thoughtfully curated cocktail menu leans heavily into California’s Spanish roots, mixing exceptional tequilas and mezcals into expertly made cocktails. For a more down home take on Santa Maria barbecue in Santa Barbara, the tri-tip sandwiches at Shalhoob Meat Co’s are a local institution.
Cold Spring Tavern in Santa Barbara
Drive about 30 minutes east of Santa Barbara proper into the Santa Ynez Mountains to reach Cold Spring Tavern, a legendary smokehouse with over 150 years of history. State Route 154, dubbed the Chumash Highway after the Central Californian Indigenous nation, rivals even Highway 1 for beauty: misty fields framed by mountains, switchback turns overlooking rivers and bluffs, and everywhere a painter’s palette of hues. Once a waystation for horse-drawn stagecoaches, the tavern, a sprawling log cabin complex, exudes Old West saloon vibes. The tri-tip, smoked throughout the day, comes with a hunk of French bread and a trio of horse radish, salsa, and barbecue sauce. Highly recommended are the thick, beer-battered onion rings. Ditto for a hearty pour of Santa Barbara red wine.
Jocko’s Steakhouse in Nipomo
Nestled in the small farming community of Nipomo, Jocko’s Steakhouse has been a barbecue destination for decades. While there’s no relation to my favorite podcaster, I’d like to think this is the type of restaurant Jocko Willink, a former Navy Seal, would approve of: the no-frills atmosphere, ranchers sipping whisky, and a small menu zeroed in on exceptional meat. While the tri-tip is superb, Jocko’s also smokes swankier cuts like New York Strips and Ribeyes (called a Spencer steak here). The owners are proud Italian-Americans, and if you’re ready for a break from beef, Jocko’s plates of pasta are alone worth the trip to Nipomo. While the vibe is boots ‘n’ bourbon, the wine menu has an impressive selection of treasures from Edna Valley and Paso Robles, among the nation’s most acclaimed viticultural regions.
Old Slo BBQ Co. in San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo, a laid-back college town home to CalPoly University, boasts several queue-worthy barbecue joints, but Old Slo BBQ Co. seems to be the favorite among those in the know. While the fried chicken or linguiça sandwiches are delectable, the house specialty is juicy tri-tip sandwiches on a crusty baguette. For the beer lovers among us, Old Slo BBQ has a huge selection of Central California craft, dispensed by a pay-by-the-ounce system in which customers pour their own suds. If you still have room after all that barbecue and beer, the salted caramel brownie, the only dessert on the menu, will usher you directly into food-induced nirvana.
Making Santa Maria barbecue at Home
If you can’t swing a Highway 1 road trip any time soon, you can always try your hand at making Santa Maria barbecue in your backyard. In the spirit of the Californian ranchers of yore, invite a group of buddies over, fire up the grill, and uncork a few bottles of red.
There are few good cookbooks available, but I like the book issued by the Santa Maria Chamber of Commerce, available for free as a pdf. You can find quality tri-tip at most grocery stores or butcher shops; ditto for Portugesue- or Spanish-style sausage, a fantastic complement to the beef. As for seasoning, Amazon carries a few brands of well-reviewed Santa Maria spice mix. If you have extra dough to spend, you can purchase a brand spankin’ new, stainless steel Santa Maria grill for around $2,500. Alternatively, if you already have a backyard grill, you can convert it into a Santa Maria rig with a more affordable attachment. Amazon even sells red oak chips for about $25 a bag. While red oak is best, you can get close to the right flavor even with other types of oak chips, like post oak or white oak.